Isomac Tea Espresso Machine Review
October 2, 2005
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — perhaps, but if they called them “stink weeds” it might be more difficult to sell them by the dozen on St. Valentine’s Day.
We’ve all heard various funny stories about companies marketing products with unfortunate names in other languages.
The Isomac Tea is one of the better examples. The story as I have it is that it’s intended to be pronounced “Tey-uh”, in the venerable Italian habit of giving neat pieces of gear women’s names. Unfortunately, when they brought it out here, a lot of people apparently went “Tea? I want coffee, not tea!” and didn’t give it another look.
Which is a shame…
The Tea is an amazing machine; if you read through the consumer ratings on CoffeeGeek, it gets a higher rating than virtually any other machine at up to twice its price. Isomac has since pulled the Tea from the American market, and has replaced it with a redesigned version, the Rituale. The Rituale looks to be nice also, but as a result of all of this, there is a fairly brisk market in gently used Teas, and I was pleased to be able to acquire one.
Going to the Tea was a big step up in my search for “Coffee Nirvana”. After the Gaggia Compact, I knew quite quickly that I was also going to be acquiring a semi-automatic machine. Since I’ve got limited room and an even more limited budget, I decided that this needed to be a big enough step to keep me from having “upgrade fever” again for what will hopefully be a very long time.
Researching, I found that one problem that virtually all of the “consumer” espresso machines seem to share is that while many can pull an optimum shot of espresso, very few of them can do more than one or two in a row without having to mess about with waiting for the temperature to stabilize again (a phenomenon often called “temperature surfing”). If you also want to steam milk, then add more time and a lot more messing about.
Stepping up from this into the “pro-sumer” ranks, you get into “Heat Exchanger” (“HX”) machines that can supply a fairly continuous stream of water at temperature. You also find the “E-61 Group Head.”
Apparently one of the finest designs for espresso equipment was the “E-61” group head, designed by Famea in 1961. The “group head” is the piece of metal sticking out of the front of an espresso machine that holds the “portafilter” (where the coffee grounds go) and applies water to the grounds when you brew.
In the case of the E-61, this is a mammoth 8 pounds or so of chromed brass that by virtue of its design does an excellent job of “preinfusing” the grounds with hot water prior to the brew, and when mounted in a “thermosiphon” loop with the heat exchanger, maintains very solid temperature stability.
The long and short of it is — it works very well.
The Tea is an E-61/HX machine, and also brings to the table both a boiler pressure and a brew pressure gauge, seperate wands and controls for hot water and steam, the ability to be plumbed into your water supply (ideally with a softener and filter inline), and a huge drip dray for collecting excess water. It ties this all together in a gloriously retro-looking hunk of stainless steel that weighs just shy of 50 lbs dry.
One attribute of HX machines is that, even though the group head is at the right temperature, water sitting in the heat exchanger is superheated, and a little too hot (around 240 degrees) to brew with. As a result, if the machine has been sitting idle for a little while, just before pulling the shot you need to let 4 – 6 ounces of overly-hot water run through the group head. Obviously, this makes directly connecting the machine to the water supply a very nifty feature (along with the oversized drip tray, if you don’t want to also plumb a drain.)
I was concerned with how difficult it would take to learn to pull a good shot, but it essentially took very little time. My routine is as follows:
- Remove the portafilter and wipe the basket dry if it’s damp
- Dose the basket with ground coffee (I go to the top, on the double basket)
- Tap the portafilter lightly on the counter to settle the grounds
- Tamp the grounds to 30 pounds with a 58 millimeter tamper
- Flip up the brew lever to start water coming through the group head (without attaching the portafilter). As soon as a steady stream of water with no steam is coming through, push down the brew lever to stop it
- Attach the portafilter
- Flip up the brew lever, and extract the shot; you’re aiming for around 2 ounces of coffee (counting crema) in 25 – 27 seconds, before the shot turns “blonde” — if you get more coffee faster, grind a little finer next time; slower, grind a little coarser
- Flip the lever all the way down to release the pressure in the filter basket
- Remove the portafilter, dump the grounds (the “puck”), and rinse clean
- Wipe the grouphead with a damp washcloth to clean off any stray grounds
- Replace the portafilter on the group head to keep it warm
A nice simple 11 step process, but it sounds a LOT more difficult than it is in practice. In reality, after just a couple of days practice, I can pull two double shots in a lot less time than the super automatic can, even counting the cleanup after — and the quality of the coffee produced is amazingly better.
I’m not a big milk-drink drinker (although I make them for guests), but in a few attempts at steaming, it seems to do a great job producing quality “microfoam” milk as well.
If I sound happy with the Tea, it’s because I am. It’s pretty much everything I want in a machine at the moment. Asking around, it seems like more expensive machines offer a few more creature comforts (a “no burn” steam wand, for instance, with might be more important to me if I drank more milk-based drinks), but they essentially produce no better espresso.